That was one of the first things out of the mouth of the always-outspoken Scott Schroeder (right), chef of South Philly Tap Room and American Sardine Bar, at the outset of his class centered on the famously hearty Eastern European cuisine. That’s not to say the Detroit native, who was joined in the Pole-position festivities by chef Mark Regan (left) of SPTR, has no experience whatsoever with borscht and bigos. Back home in The D, Schroeder grew up visiting the traditional Polish neighborhood of Hamtramck, frequenting its many butcher shops, grocery stores and restaurants and soaking in all those feel-good babcia-crafted vibes. Nowadays, Schroeder, whose surname is far too vowel-heavy to pass for Polish, deals in thoughtful bar food, but that hasn’t squelched his interest in this kind of cooking.
His class-leading disclaimer was not an admission of ineptitude, but a roundabout heads up that he and Regan would be preparing a truly “nouveau Polish” menu. How nouveau? While the quick-grilled, bias-sliced pieces of kielbasa that accompanied Schroeder’s first course were true OG, purchased from Port Richmond’s Krakus Market, this zesty bowl featured a decidedly contemporary mod: xanthan gum. A staple of modern (aka “molecular”) kitchens, the additive is used to thicken and stabilize soups and sauces. Schroeder employed a pinch of it here to lend spoon-clinging body to this bright chilled cuke and pickle juice situation, garnished with dill, onion and chopped egg.
Next up came what’s perhaps the most recognizable Polish export this side of PJPII: pierogi! Everyone loves these satisfying butter-fried dumplings, and people are infinitely opinionated about who’s got the best — utter the name Mrs. T’s in a group of Poles and see how fast you get booted in the junk. Luckily, Schroeder was wise enough to make his from scratch. Since no one can agree on the superior filling — potato? sauerkraut? cheese? — Schroeder, who used to pull dumpling duty during an old gig at Jones, decided to take an all-inclusive approach. His “everything pierogi” featured all three of the aforementioned fillings (including homemade kraut, fermented for three weeks), forming like delicious Voltron inside light dough jackets topped with onions, frizzled parsley and brown butter.
The so-called “nouveau” approach of the proceedings manifested itself once more in Schroeder’s main course, but that didn’t mean the entree plate was at all froofy. On the contrary: The chef started at two very traditional and very porky places, bringing them together for a flavor-packed third act. The first element was a beer-soaked goulash (above, top), starting with a pork-bone stock rife with cubed pork meat and a helluva lotta pork fat, complemented by roasted celeriac and turnip plus onion, pepper, paprika and caraway. The second was a beautiful loin of pork (above, bottom), brined overnight ahead of slow-roasting to an ideal medium.
Instead of ladling the goulash into a bowl and serving the meat separately, Schroeder made compelling case for fat-kid commingling, generously streaking the stew over the sliced loin and butter-fried broad beans topped with crisped panko. It just turned autumnal about three seconds ago, but this plate dug its spurs into the calendar and got everyone into hoodie season a little bit quicker. Most American takes on goulash, which Schroeder ate a ton of as a lad, include rooty elements like taters and carrots, so it was cool to get the robust crunch of the celery root and turnip in this sauce, further brightened with dill and sour cream. SPTR fans should harangue Schroeder and Regan on Twitter to get this on the Tap Room’s specials board.
Though the evening started with a humorous ice-breaker — “What’s your favorite Polish joke?”* — and the sight of Schroeder manning a stand mixer is pretty hilarious, dessert was no laughing matter. For a sweet finale he put out crazy-good paczki, the filled doughnuts closely associated with the calorie-laden debauch that typically precedes the Christian Lenten season. Starting with a base of flour, egg, sugar, butter and brandy, the fellas filled each sucker up with honeycrisp apple jam to fry in an oil-filled cast-iron pan, which ensured the sugar stuck to the outside just right. Schroeder might not be Polish or cook Polish food on the regular, but he for damn sure knows how to put his best red and white foot forward when the mood strikes.
* Mine, courtesy of jokemaster/COOK alum David Katz, was this — Q: Why is there no Kool-Aid in Poland? A: No one can figure out how to get three quarts of water into that little packet.**
** My girlfriend is Polish and I have plenty of Polish friends, I swear to PJPII.
Photos: Drew Lazor